Our buddy, PierreRich Stigall
by Trace Thurlby
January 20th, 2010, nine days after the largest quake in Haiti’s history, and my first unfiltered look at the devastation. In the back of a truck, Joe and I were going hospital to hospital talking with administrators about providing a follow-on-care home to newly-orphaned and abandoned children. Our next stop was at the St. Adventists hospital in Port Au Prince.
Fear of aftershocks kept people outside. Hundreds sprawled across lawns and parking lots under makeshift, bed-sheet tents. Less fortunate lay exposed to the sun on plastic blue tarps. All waited day after day for medical care. Walking among masses of humanity, our day turned in the eyes of a precocious, ten-year-old boy, Pierre.
The hospital staff told us Pierre was by himself. Both his mom and dad were dead. His aunt served as guardian, but had not been there in seven days. Despite life’s current difficulties, Pierre’s eyes danced. His smile could move product, and with little effort, we drew forth his gremlinesque giggle that made us want to be there for him all the more.
Through an interpreter, Pierre told us his story. Mom died of natural causes the previous year. Father had run off with another woman, leaving Pierre with his aunt, who was also responsible for her father, a sister, and her own children. Pierre went to school some, but it was obviously easy for him to find autonomy among so many moving parts. That was life before their home fell in the earthquake, broke Pierre’s leg and crushed what little family structure he had left.
Pierre had been on the grass outside the hospital with an obviously-broken right leg for more than a week. The kid was as tough as a strap of new leather, but with no one to champion him, who knows how long he would have been there? Joe’s not bilingual or a doctor, but he knows how to walk a medical chart to the front of the line. So, he did.
When we came back to get Pierre the next day, the x-ray confirmed a broken right femur and Pierre sported a cast that went from hip to heel. He was good to go. GO Project’s Orphan Transition Village (OTV) would become Pierre’s new home until his Aunt Renette could be located.
I met Renette about a week later. We shared a Sprite and some shade under the veranda at the Jumecourt Inn. Her adult life had been spent as a nurse, a single mom, and caring for her father. Days were long, but all worked fairly well until she tore her ACL in 2004. Unable to walk, she lost her full-time job. While her income went away, her responsibilities did not. Life became very difficult.
Even when her knee recovered, good, full-time jobs were hard to find in Haiti. She strung together part-time jobs to provide as best she could. When her sister died leaving Pierre in her care in 2009, she was maxed out, and that was before the earthquake fell her home. She shared her story, lifeless and empty. She was convinced she could not care for Pierre, but said she would stay in touch. She proved true to her word.
While large plaster casts, the hot Caribbean sun, and a ten-year-old boy seem a recipe for disaster, Pierre’s recovery was actually going quite well. He was the model patient, demonstrating to other on-the-mend children that getting a shot deserved no fear, no tears. Despite his commendable bravado, under the surface, we knew it wasn’t just Pierre’s body that needed to heal.
One evening Pastor Moise of Source De La Grace church and SDLG children’s village (formerly the OTV) woke me up at 4 a.m. Pierre was screaming in pain. I had been checking on him several times a day and had never seen him close to this state.
The clinic’s old ambulance finally started. Moise and I jumped in the back with Pierre and off we went to Love a Child’s superior medical facility. Moise knew Creole. I had spent more time with Pierre, so it was going to be a team effort.
I told Pierre where we were going and re-assured him. Moise translated.
After a pause Pierre spoke.
MOISE: Trace, Pierre just shared something disturbing.
MOISE: He said that last night someone hit him with a belt and tried to take him off property.
My heart jumped into my throat. A six-foot wall stood around the OTV. We have 24-hour security. It did seem unlikely, but not impossible. I couldn’t dismiss it offhand.
TRACE: Ask him if he was hit many times or just one time.
MOISE: He says just once.
TRACE: Ask him if it’s ever happened before since he’s been with us.
TRACE: Does he recognize the man who hit him?
TRACE: Who is it?
MOISE: He says it is his father.
I exhaled. Pierre’s father died in the earthquake. Pierre was speaking of an awful nightmare. Coupled with new surroundings, a broken femur, and the trauma of having lived through a terrible disaster, this frightening vision had pushed Pierre over the edge. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last, brutal nightmare that tortured Pierre in the coming days. We reassured him the best we could, all the while realizing that his brain was running a painful gauntlet that we could only imagine.
Eventually, the nightmares subsided, and within a few months, the cast was off. Soon, Pierre was at school and on the soccer field with other kids his age. At times, his actions would reveal his street-kid streak, but Pierre wasn’t defined by his past. His eyes continued to dance. His smile won the hearts of many, and his heart was teachable. Pierre was in a good place, heading in a good direction.
May of 2012, I’m at Jumecourt again; this time leading a Vision Trip when Rogelin, 17 and another buddy we met after the earthquake, approaches to say, “There’s a lady here who wants to talk with you.”
It was Renette. I’m probably at Jumecourt 20 days a year. To be there when Renette came to visit was a gift. I gave thanks for the smile on her face and the renewed life in her eyes. We hugged and once again found a seat, some shade, and shared soda.
Renette told me she had come to meet with Pastor Laventure, who for legal purposes was Pierre’s current guardian. She wanted to take Pierre home, and her meeting with Pastor Laventure had gone well. Renette knew GO Project had no say. This work of caring for God’s children belongs to His church. Yet out of courtesy and recognizing that many of us do, in fact, love Pierre, Renette included me and graciously fielded my questions, which included two that had to be tough to answer.
I asked Renette where she was living.
“I live in a tent community,” she responded.
I then asked if she had been able to find work.
“No. Not yet.”
Neither of these is likely to change in the short term. There’s no American plan to make everything easy. My heart was heavy. At times, life is hard. Will Pierre be better off living in a tent city with his aunt, rather than under the care of the church here? Children belong with family, but anyone who doesn’t struggle with this question doesn’t begin to appreciate the rugged realities still before Renette.
Pastor Laventure and Renette agreed Pierre should finish the school year at Jumecourt, and then she would come back and get him later this summer. No tearful goodbyes. I simply wanted to tell him that I loved him. I was proud of him, and God, who had watched over him during and after the earthquake, would continue to watch over him.
My mind raced back to Amanda, a Haitian 10-year-old who grabbed my heart in 2006. It was Amanda who God first used to show me that this is His work. He owns it. Renette may not take Pierre. She may take him and then bring him back if hardship returns, or he may stay with Renette until he is an adult.
Do I have to control the outcome? Do I even have to know? If God invites us to help provide a temporary family for a child while biological families recover from death and disaster, will we accept? Every time. What a privilege!
My eyes turned back to Pierre. “Stay close to Jesus, buddy,” I said before hugging him tight, kissing his head, and walking away….